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Washington lawyer Bob Barnett is the force behind many political book deals

By David Montgomery
Sunday, March 7, 2010; A01

In "I, Alex Cross," the new bestseller set in Washington by James Patterson, fictional detective Alex Cross scans the ego wall in the office of a senator he's investigating:

The senator has hung photos of himself "with the president . . . the vice president. Tiger Woods. Bono. Arnold and Maria. Bob Woodward. Robert Barnett."

Robert Barnett?

"The senator," muses Cross, "was obviously a well-connected man, and he wanted everyone who walked into his office to know it right away."

The real Bob Barnett chuckles appreciatively when a visitor to his own Washington office cites the passage. Barnett is too discreet to mount an ego wall. He's as subtle as his 1930s vintage French cufflinks. At first glance, they are but slight dots of color -- gold, blue, red, depending on the day's shade of silk and pinstripe -- until you regard them under a magnifying glass. Then they reveal their complexity and craftsmanship.

To list Barnett as a signifier of Washington connectedness is like calling the sun a symbol of heat. This is good for his clients, who pay him $975 an hour, but Barnett's virtual monopoly on the specialty of helping public figures cash in -- on power memoirs, on private-sector jobs -- invests in one man a remarkable degree of influence across the political spectrum. The yearning to profit after a career in politics is an age-old Washington instinct, but the rise of Barnett's one-stop shop is a story not widely known.

At 63, Barnett is having perhaps his best year ever, as measured in political juice and cultural buzz. On Tuesday, more than half a million copies of Karl Rove's controversial political memoir, "Courage and Consequence," will land in bookstores. Barnett negotiated the reported seven-figure advance.

"When I left the White House, I needed to have a rabbi to help me navigate what the possibilities might be out there," Rove says. "Bob helped me maximize the process to my advantage."

Rove's book comes after a triple play of opuses by other Barnett clients: Henry M. Paulson Jr., Sarah Palin, the late Edward M. Kennedy. Due later this year are Laura Bush's book and George W. Bush's memoir, both Barnett specials. Gathering their reflections: Richard B. Cheney, Donald M. Rumsfeld, Tony Blair.

Hiring Barnett is such a predictable Washington move that when Scott Brown, the new Massachusetts junior senator, recently contacted Barnett about a book, the publishers had beat him to it: They predicted Brown would shop a book, thought he would hire Barnett -- so they skipped directly to the lawyer.

That's a lot of Republicans for a Democrat such as Barnett, who has done pro bono work on nearly every presidential campaign since 1976. In other years, Democrats have beat a path to his door: Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Obama.

"It is very helpful personally as well as professionally to have him by your side," says Hillary Clinton, who hired Barnett to negotiate the $8 million deal for her memoir, "Living History."

And the books are a mere fraction of his law practice. His specialty is the birth, life and death of Washington careers -- then he works on the afterlife. When a president writes a memoir, an ex-Cabinet member or departing senator needs a job, a television anchor would like a raise, a politician is testifying before Congress, or wannabe presidents are rehearsing for debates, it's a good bet that Barnett is on the case. He ushers the powerful to Washington, tries to make their lives fruitful while they're here, then helps them launch second acts elsewhere.

Ultimately, when war stories are immortalized between hard covers, Barnett will cut the publishing deals and frequently turn up in the narratives.

Barnett, of course, won't claim any of this about himself. "That's for others to say," he demurs in his gravelly Midwestern voice, with all its musical long vowels, which he never lost after coming to Washington from Waukegan, Ill., 38 years ago.

Others will say it.

"He's like a one-man vertical and horizontal operation for all things at the nexus of politics and culture and media," Republican consultant Mary Matalin says.

However, there's also this view: "He's a human conflict of interest," says a publishing executive who won't be quoted by name saying anything negative about Barnett. By conflict of interest, the publisher does not mean anything illegal or unethical. The exec just wonders how anyone with conviction could zealously advocate for both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Barack Obama.

If you help Palin-Bush-Cheney, under the cosmic laws of political ecology, don't you hurt Clinton-Clinton-Obama?

This is a central puzzle of Barnett's identity. He won't solve it for you. He shoots his cuffs, flutters his long, graceful fingers in the air, smiles his open smile.

Both sides of the aisle: How lucrative. How broadminded. How quaint.

* * *

"Bob Barnett, who was playing Bush now, really started getting into it. He had studied Bush's habits and his speeches and clips so much that he was actually a much more impressive Bush and much harder on me than Bush himself would be . . .

-- "Ferraro: My Story," by Geraldine Ferraro

That was the moment, in 1984, the year Barnett started evolving into the indispensable man.

Ferraro was the Democratic vice presidential candidate, running with Walter Mondale against Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mondale tapped Barnett to help Ferraro prepare for her historic debate against Bush. Barnett, a former high school debater, plunged into his role with the zeal of a method actor.

A Democratic debate coach was born -- always a volunteer, separate from his law practice at Williams & Connolly, where he made partner in 1978. He channeled Bush twice more: In 1988, sparring with Michael Dukakis; and in 1992, drilling Bill Clinton. After Clinton's victory, Bush sent Barnett a note: "The problem with you, Bob, is you play me too well."

In 2000 and 2004, he played Cheney. In 2007 and 2008, he helped prep Hillary Clinton for 23 primary debates. By 2007, Barnett's ubiquity was bordering on the ridiculous. Seven of the presidential hopefuls from both parties had been clients: Clinton, Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Evan Bayh, Fred Thompson and Jim Gilmore.

But back to the other key thing that happened in 1984: Ferraro decided to write a book. Barnett helped her find an agent, who sold it for a reported $1 million, stunning at the time. Barnett had an epiphany. Who needs an agent? Barnett the lawyer could do it all.

The next year, Barnett offered his services to David Stockman, shopping his bombshell critique of the Reagan revolution. He got Stockman $2.4 million. "I remember that number well," Stockman says. "It was a big number then, and it's a big number now."

The era of the multimillion-dollar Washington blockbuster memoir had arrived, and Barnett was at its center. Those first two deals set a Barnett pattern: big money and bipartisanship.

Barnett's book business pretty much wrote itself from there. He estimates he handles 15 deals a year -- one of every 100 someone pitches to him. It seems he does more only because they make headlines.

He also started representing media figures in their contract negotiations and now has 350. (He has been married for 38 years to CBS's Rita Braver. Their daughter, Meredith, 31, is editorial director of TheInsideSource.com, eBay's digital style magazine.)

Barnett represented Marcus Brauchli, executive editor of The Washington Post, when Brauchli left the Wall Street Journal in 2008. Barnett has worked on book projects for Post writers including Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee and the late Katharine Graham.

As connections begat connections, Barnett added a third bipartisan legal niche -- top officials moving into the private or nonprofit worlds: James A. Baker III, Dan Quayle, Lawrence H. Summers, Donna E. Shalala, Madeline K. Albright, Trent Lott, John D. Ashcroft, Andrew H. Card Jr., etc.

For all the boldface names, the bread and butter of his practice is quiet corporate work for clients such as JM Family Enterprises, the largest distributor of Toyotas, based in Florida. (Barnett drives nothing but Toyotas and professes to be unshaken by the manufacturer's recent woes.)

Yet, as his seat cushion says, quoting Thomas Jefferson: "I cannot live without books."

Barnett is sitting on that cushion now in his corner office in the downtown Edward Bennett Williams Building -- named after the late, great founder of Williams & Connolly, in whose well-wired, politically ecumenical tradition Barnett operates.

There's something old-fashioned about Barnett. Something way outside the Beltway. He has become the ultimate Washington insider, yet he retains a lingering outsiderness. This translates as sincerity, and it serves him well.

His father, Bernard, who also collected cufflinks, was a district manager for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. His mother, Betty, worked in a department store. Barnett once expected to end up in Waukegan teaching high school English.

"I'm not talented. I can't write a book. . . . But I admire those who do, and if I can play a small part, whether it's making the deal, sometimes I edit the book, maybe it's doing the rollout, whatever, that's fun for me."

Although Barnett represents members of both political parties throughout his practice, the line-crossing in the book business is most striking. A book is not like an employment contract. A book can be a platform, a cudgel. Would Obama be president if so many people hadn't read his books? Will Palin build momentum for the next election?

"When you're a doctor and you're a Democrat and you help a person and you make them well, that patient can go attack the patients you also heal," he says. "But your job is to help them, and that's what I do as a lawyer. I help Sarah Palin but I also help Barack Obama. That doesn't trouble me."

He did his part to see that Bush and Cheney would not be elected or reelected. Then they hired him to sell their memoirs.

"I could have a partisan law practice," Barnett says. "Many do. I wouldn't find that satisfying, because I like to represent a variety of people. I like having dinner with them. I like reading the book when it's done. I like hearing their ideas. I love debating with them if I don't agree with them."

His Democratic friends do not appear to hold his deals with Republicans against him. "No one doubts Bob Barnett's deep convictions," former senator Thomas A. Daschle says.

Barnett epitomizes a certain fragile quality of the Washington establishment that some say is vanishing. He may be the last avatar.

"I've found that people on the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum actually have more in common personally and politically than we know or they know," Barnett says. "Unfortunately, because of the diminution -- if not the absence -- of socializing, because of the party discipline in the legislative branch, the need to raise incalculable sums of money and the existence of 24-hour cable, the comity and the productivity that used to be -- and could be again -- has been eliminated."

Williams, one of Barnett's idols, believed every person deserved a good lawyer. He represented Mafia bosses, disgraced politicians, Washington power brokers of all stripes.

Barnett draws a line. He doesn't think every author deserves Bob Barnett as a literary lawyer.

"I've turned down many of the purveyors of hate," he says, declining to identify them.

Why does he not extend his customary professional agnosticism to this cohort? "Because I've got a child who I love and hopefully she loves me, and I want her to be proud of her daddy," Barnett says.

* * *

"Barnett did not need to know the identity of Deep Throat, and I didn't tell him. I said the person, who was now very elderly, seemed to be on the verge of agreeing that his identity could or should be released publicly. Should that story be told before his death? And if so, how? . . . Given his years navigating the shoals of Washington politics, he sees angles that I would not imagine."

-- "The Secret Man," by Bob Woodward

Follow the money.

Barnett's rate of $975 an hour is a lot of money, but his transformational insight was to apply a lawyer's fee structure to the work of an agent. Then it's not necessarily so much money.

A traditional literary agent charges 15 percent of an advance. Barnett helped Bill Clinton sell "My Life" for a record $15 million. Clinton would have paid an agent $2.25 million; Barnett says he put in far fewer hours than the 2,308 he would have needed to work to bill $2.25 million.

His clients can do the math. "For someone like me, the savings are extraordinary," author Patterson says.

Barnett's system works only for clients who command big advances. "I think under his model some of my clients would be bankrupt," says Gail Ross of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, which has represented Christine Todd Whitman, Francis Collins, Michele Norris.

Ross says she may work upward of 75 hours on a client's project. At Barnett's rates, that would be $73,000. If Ross's author gets a $100,000 advance, Ross's 15 percent would be $15,000.

"He does a certain kind of book extraordinarily well," Ross says. "I love my $1 million books, but I also love my $100,000 books."

Publishers maintain that Barnett deserves neither the credit nor the blame for the seeming inflation in high-profile Washington memoirs. "A market price is a market price," says David Young, chairman of the Hachette Book Group, whose subsidiary publishes Patterson.

Although a few books have been "disappointing . . . with Bob you never feel you've been hoodwinked," says Carolyn Reidy, president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster, whose Threshold Editions is rolling out Rove's and Cheney's books. "You feel you did it to yourself. You were enamored with the fairy dust of the author as opposed to Bob."

Peter Osnos, founder of PublicAffairs Books, has done deals with Barnett, but he does not admire the money-soaked system in which Barnett is a player, because he thinks it monetizes public service. "Publishers are increasingly the enablers of wealth for people who manage to get elected," Osnos says. "You can't say it's Bob's fault, but he sure as hell is at the center of it."

Barnett says that if a politician sells a book while in office, the proceeds are disclosed. If the public servant is out of office, "the person is a private citizen. They have the right to make a deal, they have the right to have a job, they have the right to sell a book. . . . Therein lies a marketplace, therein lies fair bargaining.

* * *

"Bob Barnett met with me in the Yellow Oval Room to talk over some unrelated business and, as a friend, to see how I was holding up. After we'd finished, Bob asked me if I was worried. 'No,' I said. 'I'm just sorry all of us have to endure this.'

Then Bob said, 'What if there's more to this than you know?'

'I don't believe there is. I've asked Bill over and over again.'

'But,' Bob continued, 'you have to face the fact that something about this might be true.' "

-- "Living History," by Hillary Rodham Clinton

The care and feeding of a wide spectrum of friends, who themselves may be bitter political enemies, while also guarding a complicated trove of confidences, may be Barnett's signature legacy.

He works hard at it. Clients in time zones from London to Wasilla, Alaska, speak of having their phone calls and e-mails returned within 30 minutes.

He is said to be relentlessly cheerful, calm when others panic. When Meredith Barnett was asked in nursery school to make a picture of her parents, she drew Rita Braver in a power suit and Bob Barnett in pajamas.

He gets animated when he describes his non-power-Washington books, like the forthcoming memoir by prison journalist and convicted killer Wilbert Rideau and the memoirs of Pat Summitt, legendary coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, a rare project Barnett pursued because he thought she could inspire women like his daughter and niece.

But Washington is his town.

There's a reading of Washington which holds that people come here with convictions but lose them through compromise. The view has been around for as long as candidates have positioned themselves to run "against" Washington, and it is vibrant today.

There's an alternative view that gridlock over important issues is one result of perhaps too much conviction. "Would that Washington politics in general worked as well as Bob Barnett does," Patterson says. "When all the politicking is done, he sits down and gets the job done."

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